Last Tuesday the 21st I drove my three oldest children to a ranch in Chesapeake, VA, where they are staying at a camp run by Bethany Bible Training Center. They all paid their own expenses for attendance, which was very reasonable at $165 each for five days. Rebekah and Garrett seemed excited, but Catherine was miserable and crying for the first leg of the journey because I insisted they leave their tablets and phones at home with me.
Catherine has spent nearly her entire summer talking to a boyfriend, hidden in her room from the rest of the family. When it was time to leave the house, she was the last to get off a video call with him and get moving. In the past year it has been her pattern to talk for hours to her boyfriend and other peers from school and say nothing to anyone in her family. I know that she is aware it’s a problem, because when she and the others went to Delmarva around Father’s Day she sent me a text saying she was sorry that her relationship with Sikki and I has become almost nonexistent. We’ve talked about it since, of course, but I pointed out to her that it is always at my initiative. Recently I sat her down and asked if she was happy with the way things are and she responded, No. I asked her to consider what had led to this state of “disconnectedness.” She seemed unable (or unwilling) to conjure up a reason, so I suggested that perhaps it is because she never reveals anything about herself to her family, that her entire force of life and energy is spent on people outside our home. At that she was fairly silent. I tried to explain the dynamics of relationships to her: that it is impossible to have a relationship with anyone (parents, family, God) without spending time with those people. Her life has been out of balance. So for the trip to camp, I requested that she leave the devices behind. She cried and acted physically sick during the five hour drive.
When we arrived at the camp, I met the Picataggis again. I had not seen them since I was 18 or so – 25 years ago. The two of them have given their entire lives to serving the Lord in the administration of a Bible school and pastoring. Joanne in particular (along with Jack Buskey and Wade Taylor) affected a change to the course of my entire life during a convention at the now-closed Pinecrest Bible Training Center in Salisbury Center, New York. Joanne greeted me with a hug and said it was good to see me again. When I parted to leave, she said they loved me and asked me to pray for the school in Chesapeake.
On the ride home, I spent a good deal of time waiting on the Lord and praying for the teens and staff who were attending the camp – about a hundred people. I asked that the Lord would reveal His love to them. The Word tells us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” because God is only known by revelation and experience, and not by mere theology, perfunctory prayers, or Christianese catchphrases. It’s been my experience that a person needs a moment when he or she is “hooked” by the Lord because of a new understanding of His mercy and unending faithfulness on a personal level. Though I was raised in a Christian home, for me that process began to happen when I was 15.
As I continued to watch and pray behind the wheel, a phrase came to mind: “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; yes, the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon.” The cedars of Lebanon were among the strongest and most desirable of building materials known to the ancient people of Israel. Cedar wood is not prone to warp or sag with time, and it smells good too. It represented the best the world had to offer a builder of temple, palace, or home. But in Psalm 29, King David sang that the voice of the Lord smashed them to pieces with an awesome display of lightning in a devastating storm.
Talking with my wife recently, I expressed my frustration about Catherine, who seems to be completely enveloped and enamored with this world and its ways: her friends are people who also love the world, and she has never had a moment when she was “hooked” on Jesus. My wife said she feels like there is nothing she can do to help our daughter but pray for her and hold her before the Lord. She said, “Catherine is not outside of His reach.” That was a powerful statement to me. It shot through me and inspired faith.
There is no one who is outside the reach of the Lord’s voice. Even one who has sheltered himself in the “best the world has to offer” cannot resist the force of God’s Word when the King displays His power. And for some, the point of hearing will not come without a storm. In the car I found myself praying for the generation to come, and for myself, that the Lord will break through our hard places with His awesome Word. It is only after that breaking that we can build something – together with Him – that will stand.
“Is not My word like a fire?” says the Lord, “And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29).
The day after their arrival, my oldest daughter contacted me and said they weren’t having a good time. They weren’t connecting with anyone there and the kids there were young and stupid. The girls were boy-crazy and social-media obsessed. The boys were mean-spirited. This came as a surprise to my oldest daughter, as this was her first experience of a “Christian camp.” I offered to come get them if they chose to leave, but I prayed that God would change their hearts and reveal Himself and His purpose.
There is always a great chasm between our expectations of church life and the reality of the experience. I have seen countless people get offended by that dynamic, resulting in their ultimate withdrawal from the Body of Christ. They get into a situation that makes them realize that not everyone is like them, not everyone appreciates their specific talents or calling, and because of this their love grows cold and they fall away. The kingdom of God is now populated by “a mixed multitude,” just as the congregation was that left Egypt. There are good fish and bad, good fruit and bad, wheat and tares. The angels of the Lord will make a separation of these at the end of the age. Much ado is made in Christian circles of the early church, but even a cursory reading of the book of Acts and the epistles will show that our current problems in church are not new. Yet the apostles through the unction of the Holy Spirit admonished us to love one another and not forsake the actual, physical assembling of ourselves together, to strive for unity in spite of the splinters and factions and even heresies. The church suffers from a deep identity crisis, and anyone who thinks more highly of himself than he ought and departs fellowship only exacerbates the problem and cuts himself off from the grace and administration of Christ’s power. The life of Christ functions through the life of the church, and that is by His design, not ours.
That being said, there is much that must happen OUTSIDE of the normal functioning of church, apart from Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. From my observation, this is what is lacking in the operation of the Body of Christ in my country. Often an established church is like a little kingdom unto itself, with all its focus inward. A person who wants to make a difference in this world will probably not be able to do so operating solely within the strictures and boundaries of a local church body. Indeed, that group of people who are focused inward will sometimes become the point of greatest resistance to the work of God, because the labor in the vineyard is often messy. And that’s where a Christian youth camp falls (or orphanage, or food ministry, or missions, etc.): outside the normal parameters.
Last week I was talking with a friend in the back yard. It was night and the moon shined on us as the cicadas and frogs sang their praises. From his heart the brother expressed his frustration with church, saying repeatedly, “Something is wrong.” I agreed. He mentioned that he no longer “feels fed” in church. I told him in all honesty that I have very rarely “felt fed” in church, and that most of my spiritual insight and strength is found in reading the Word and seeking the Lord in quiet places, in my “inner room.” I told him that when I go to church my prayer is that nothing I do or say will be fake or mechanical, and that my goal is to light other people’s wicks and express the love and witness of Christ to them. In other words, I keep gathering with my fellow believers (going to church) because it is the expressed will of God, and to make myself available to His purposes by serving His Body. You cannot serve Christ without serving people. I don’t want to be found a wicked servant, burying his Master’s talent. I go, though some are kooks and crazies, some are uncommitted, some are angry, some are impure, some are religious after the traditions of men and Babylon itself, some are lukewarm, some are cold, and some are white-hot with passion for Jesus Christ. As we conversed he admitted that he is not spending quality time with the Lord because he is “too busy,” and that is the true origin of his troubles.
These were the thoughts in my mind when I admonished my children to stay at the camp – though not against their will since I left them a way of escape if they wished – to make themselves available to the Lord and His purpose during their time there. The next day, she contacted me again and said they’d chosen to stay. I haven’t heard from her since, but I have continued in prayer for them throughout this week. Tomorrow morning I plan on rising very early to go retrieve them. I’d like to arrive in time to sit in the morning chapel service which begins at 9:30.